The CrackleBox ('75)

In the 1970ties about 4000 Crackleboxes were built and sold by STEIM in Amsterdam.
The Cracklebox was probably the first commercialy available portable selfpowered alternative 'keyboard' analog audio synthesizer with inbuilt loudspeaker :)

Nowadays many people refer to the The Cracklebox as the archetype of 'glitch' or 'circuit bending'.

The old Cracklebox has become a collectors item.

Since the new Cracklebox has been released in 2004 various performers are playing this instrument on stage amongst others: 'Mouse on mars' and 'Coil'.

Crackle history

by Michel Waisvisz

written: march 2004

Sometime in the early-sixties I started touching the inside of my fathers short-wave radio receivers. Before that with my brother René I had given 'concerts' at home by placing our fingers on circuit boards of transistor radios that were 'wrongly', but usefully, interconnected with wires. The little electrical shocks were nice and the changes in the sound were exiting and magic mind-openers. Through touch I was able to start playing with short wave sounds in a way that would later become 'sound music'.

I had already heard some of the early recordings of electronic music, but these often sounded so dull, so constructed, so without musical soul. Touching the inside of audio electronics was way more exiting to me. I knew this could change ideas about electronics and music. Touched electronics sounded rougher and sort of rebellious against the clean and high-tech quality of the electronic music from the fifties and early sixties.

At some point i started playing by placing my fingers on the print board of a damaged electronic organ. By patching the different parts of the circuit through my - conductive - fingers and hands I became the thinking [wet] part of a electronic circuit and i started seeing my skin as a patchable cable, potentiometer and condensator.

The great advantage was that by intuitively touching the electronics one could learn to play this new instrument without having to have schematic knowledge about the circuitry - very much like a traditional music instrument. It could be learned by playing by ear and developing experience and manual/mental skills instead of having to dive into a world of logic, functions, interaction schemes, electronic circuit theory and mathematical synthesis methods. One could play an electronic instrument in direct relation to the immediate musical pleasure of performed sound.

I derived lots of pleasure from the fact that there is, and is, no universal notation for sound. There was no way for me to start transferring laws and methods from existing tonal music concepts [that I thought were lovely but not from my planet; neither would others be able to create a paper composers practice. Traditional keyboards were exclusively related to traditional european music culture and as such I felt that keyboards were representations an old way of thinking about music: church ordained tone scale divisions lay at the base of the keyboard 'grid'. I felt that 'sound music' needed appropriate 'finger boards': like refined sliders, navigation wheels, rudders, sensitive high resolution controllers. Interfaces that could translate human musical touch and gesture into the sound world in a more continuous and dedicated way.

Human touch can shape electronic sound in a particular way: Finger pressure curves are very basic information standards. The act of applying physical effort through touch is empirically 'known' to all human beings. The listener can feel the performer's touch and recognize the effort. The handling of physical effort is part of a universal language

We noticed that listeners to radio programs that broadcasted our early experimental electronic touch concerts did not believe the sounds were generated electronically. To them it sounded like wood and metal. They seemed to be able to distinguish the motoric 'shaping' and did not associate these with electronic music. Electronic music was at that time (in to some degree still is) shaped by mathematical functions implemented in various kinds of control generators. Composers acted like managers of formulae and processes. The clean sine wave sweeps of tonal structures and sound dynamics was totally in tune with the modern non-romantic formalized world view of 50's high-tech futurism. Interestingly enough a special breed of today's laptop music culture has reverted to a similar exploration of the performer's role as an 'operator' or 'sound process manager'; someone who controls, tweaks, navigates the electronic sound creation process in a very distant, minimal effort strategy and mistakenly suggesting the making of music is a purely cerebral affair. A self-image very much related to the scientific aura of the early electronic music composers, sort of being shy freaks, imagining themselves as operating as art-scientific supervisors in control of a 'music machinery' with the scope a nuclear research plant fueling culture into cosmic dimensions.

The confrontation with audiences and cultures at the time of our early concerts was exiting.We also provided the audience with the possibility of playing the naked print board instruments. The responses were great and many spontaneous improvisations resulted, blurring the boundary between players and audience. I was look for further development of dedicated electronic music instruments by hacking circuits and in the end by creating our own circuits. I met Geert Hamelberg who knew circuit design and together we designed and built the first Crackle circuit in the late 60ties. This was simply a wooden frame with some print boards mounted rear-side up to be touched by the fingers. The circuits were 'malformed' oscillators that were very unstable and highly sensitive for finger connections. The Crackle circuit, as well as the powered speaker box, were battery powered to avoid hum and repeated exposure to dangerous electrical shocks.

In the mean time i had also bought a Putney vcs3 synth. It appealed to me because one could buy it without a keyboard and just operate it using the patch panel, potentiometers and a freely assignable joystick. This was rather unique at the time. Another aspect that I liked was that it sort of sounded like a transistor radio: crackly, brisk, rather crude, slightly distorted and hissing a bit. It did not sound like a pretentious high tech electronic organ or as clean and 'orchestral' as a Moog. It's cracklyness reminded me of the sound of ionizing air before a electro static spark unloads or the sounds of the short wave band. It had a purity in the sense that it wasn't designed to imitate traditional instruments and it was affordable. However very soon after the purchase i felt unsatisfied with it's 'interface' and felt it had to be approriated and bent to my own needs. By now i had written on the wall of the workshop: "If you can't open it, you don't own it"; so I opened the back where I could reach the print board and started connecting wires into the circuit. I led the wires to the lower front panel and connected them to a printboard with fingertop size solder blobs that i mounted on a wooden extension. Now I could play the Putney by pressing and connecting the solder blobs with my fingers and hands. I gave a lot of concerts in Europe with this 'bent' or 'extended' Putney VCS3 in the late sixties and early seventies. However, because of the frequent touring the need for a more compact and portable instrument grew. I started having fantasies about a portable battery powered 'Crackle' synth with an inbuilt loudspeaker.

In 1973 I joined the new STEIM foundation in Amsterdam and started working on the development of the 'Crackle' synth. Peter Beyls, Nico Bes and Johan den Biggelaar were great and inspiring engineers who contributed many of their talents to the development of the Crackle technology. In order to do this well they had to forget almost all of the technology 'moralities' that they had been taught during their education. Through the mid-seventies we realized the 'Crackle synth' and the 'Crackle box'. During this development process we started extending the concept to a hole range of theatrical instruments and playable objects. All sorts of household objects were wired and would become musical 'Crackle' instruments: One could play music by pouring tea into wired cups or by sticking connected spoons and forks in the mouth. The Crackle instruments can also be played collaboratively by touching both one part of the circuit and another person in a circle of interconnecting electronica and humans. Floors, bicycles, chairs, bed-sheets, clothes, coo-coo-clocks, books, string instruments and plants were wired and connected to 'Crackle' circuits and would be played in music theatre performances. This was in the special mid-seventies brand of Dutch music theatre that was often initiated and performed by the pioneers of the independent improvised music theatre scene. Through STEIM we also initiated a traveling exhibition with many of these sound objects: The Crackle exhibition became a big success with children and grownups and later became the inspiration for many other similar initiatives.

This exhibition has gone through many metamorphoses and nowadays it's called STEIM's Touch exhibition and sometimes STEIM's Electro Beep Club. While having focussed on research and development on digital sensor instruments since the mid-eighties, STEIM has recently also started bringing back the Crackle instruments. A new generation of musicians is expressing interest in a more physical control of sound. The laptops are loosing their perfect shine as digital culture becomes mainstream and 'high tech' culture associated with the war machinery. New and old alternative approaches are needed.